Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.


Published:  23 July, 2008

Since it was formed in 1972, the Wine Standards Board (WSB) has been making sure that EU wine laws are upheld in the UK. Stuart Peskett spent a day with regional inspector Mike Horswill to find out more about the WSB

A Wine Standards Board? What do we need one of those for? Surely winemakers just want to be left alone to get on with their job without outside interference? Well, be that as it may, the WSB plays a vital role in policing our vineyards through unannounced visits and its ability to seize documentation and impose movement restrictions on wine, and it also helps out with labelling queries. But, as South East regional inspector Mike Horswill is at pains to point out, the last thing the WSB wants to appear is Draconian and heavy-handed. Enforcement through education' is the philosophy, and this approach appears to pay dividends. The idea is that there's an audit trail from the grape to the glass. We spend an awful amount of time giving advice, and that applies to wholesalers, importers, whoever,' he says. Generally, it's not a confrontational thing because people in the wine trade want to get it right, and we'll assist them to do it, which makes the enforcement side of things quite easy.' Mike, 60, has been an inspector for nine years. After being posted to Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, he now looks after Kent, Sussex, Surrey, and the odd London borough, which works out at about 100 vineyards. The two main purposes of the WSB are to enforce EU wine regulations in the UK, and manage the UK vineyard register. Inspectors have a number of powers at their disposal to make their job much easier, including entering any piece of land or vehicle; inspecting any material or articles; examining and taking copies of any register, record or document (including computer records); seizing and retaining any register, record or document; analysing samples and checking enrichment levels, and prohibiting the movement of wine. Oh, and they don't need a warrant, either. All inspectors must pass the WSET Diploma as part of the initial training, and Mike admits he feels sorry for new inspectors coming in, due to the steep learning curve, although when he began, he took things a stage further by taking an introductory course in winemaking at Plumpton College. He says that by doing that he realised the problems that winemakers face and got to see things from their side. In fact, he speaks to students on the course a couple of times each year to inform them of the WSB and its role.

Policing the vineyards Mike was a police officer for more than 30 years, based in Kent, with the odd secondment to the Met. This is, he says, quite common among WSB inspectors: All of us are on second careers - we are mainly ex-police officers, ex-customs or Trading Standards. We're used to dealing with legislation and dealing with people. In the police, you get used to a really disciplined life, but you're also used to making your own decisions.' Our first stop is Tenterden in Kent, home of the Chapel Down/Curious Grape Winery. With wine-producing vineyards, Mike visits twice a year, and probably once every two years for the others. After meeting director of winemaking Owen Elias, the first thing Mike does is check the documentation of the booking-in of grapes. That's OK, and we move on to the grapes themselves - in this case, Seyval Blanc and Pinot Noir. Mike records the weight, and tests the natural juice measurement using a refractometer, to record Ursula levels. The levels are fine, and now it's the last test - the pressing results, and the record of natural sugar (potential alcohol) levels. Again, no problems here, and the atmosphere between inspector and winemaker is extremely convivial. I ask Mr Elias what he thinks about the value of the WSB: I think it's good that someone's looking around and making sure that people are doing what they're supposed to be doing,' he says. It doesn't bother me - I think it's a good thing. The thing that it doesn't really address is the quality of the wine, but that's another thing...' He raises an interesting point: while the WSB ensures that the laws are adhered to, it has no actual powers regarding the quality of table wine, the most basic of the three wine categories in England (the other two being regional wine and quality wine). Applications for regional and quality wine go for analysis first, and then an organised tasting. If they pass the tasting, then Mike issues a certificate to say that it was made in accordance with the rules for regional or quality wine. One thing that is quite apparent during the visits is that the WSB really relies on the total co-operation of the vineyard in order that the inspectors can do their job properly - without access to the paperwork and computer records, checks would be quite impossible.

Early days As we head off from Tenterden, Mike reveals that he is stepping down from his post in December. This is not an exclusive for Harpers, but Mike is keen to reminisce on his time at the WSB: When I first started, covering Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, the first enrichment I ever did, I passed this vineyard - well, I would say it was more of a "hobby" vineyard. In charge there was a retired naval commander with a friend. I called in there and they had all these vast bags of sugar from Tesco. So they're in the middle of this enrichment, and he hands me this giant canoe paddle and there I am stirring it in for him, and I thought "What am I doing here?"' Another amusing tale stems from eastern Europe. Mike says there was one trader who needed a little advice on labelling, which Mike duly gave. However, the wine bottles turned up with supermarket labels on. Mike says that when the winery was approached, it said that it had just completed a supermarket contract and had all these labels left over, so it decided to use them up on this other wine - which, of course, is illegal. Back to the present, and as we drive through the picturesque Kent countryside, Mike talks a little more about his job, and what he brings to it. It's quite an autonomous role - we send in a programme every week, so that our movements can be tracked - it's very much your own responsibility. I'm my own boss - I can do what I want, when I want. Normally I go out three days a week and spend two days in the office. But an inspector's salary is not great. It's not the sort of thing you would do if it was your first job. The WSB has always had more mature people doing the job, but there's no reason why a young person couldn't do it. I wasn't a wine buff or anything before I started. I enjoy wine, but I don't know too much about it. I think the WSB looks more for expertise in investigations and dealing with people. It's so enjoyable, and you get to taste wines that you wouldn't normally as a consumer. If we were to be hard on everyone, we would never get the job done. We don't have to be officious - we have to strike a balance. It's not a hard job, but you do need to be available for advice. Having said that, it becomes almost like a hobby, not a job.' Across into Sussex now, and we arrive at Ridgeview Estate, which is run by Michael Roberts. Again, Mike does the usual inspections, but is aided by Roberts' incredibly detailed computer database, which features exhaustive lists on chaptalisation, yields, deacidification, in fact almost every nuance of the previous six year's harvests. With everything in order, we are taken up to the tasting room and given a glass of Ridgeview's three sparkling wines, and here Mike shows himself to be something of a sparkling wine connoisseur.

Travel plans On our drive back to Kent, time for another spot of reminiscing: It's been enjoyable. People in the wine trade are very nice. You can never be complacent, obviously, but they are very nice people. Driving round the countryside meeting nice people is certainly nicer than the other job I was in.' When Mike leaves in December, he is going to concentrate on family life and spend more time travelling with his wife Yvonne, although he hopes to help out where he can with the WSB. I enjoy walking, and I'm planning more holidays. It would be nice to go somewhere for a month. We'd like to go to New Zealand, but also France, taking things more leisurely, like the French do. A lot needs doing to the garden - we're just generally going to please ourselves with what we do.'